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Today’s post is about archangels!  Glistening in the sky above us they are the most…wait…archangels the pigeon breed??? Who is choosing these topics? Sigh…ok. Well, in addition to being quasi-divine winged warriors of insane ferocity second in might only to godhead, archangels are also apparently a breed of fancy pigeon.  Germans call them “gimpels” which strikes me as a less dramatic but somehow more appropriate name.

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Like other domesticated pigeons, archangels are descended from the rock pigeon (Columba livia).  The archangel is a small pigeon with featherless legs.  Its claim to distinction is an extremely iridescent head which glistens like burnished metal!  Why does nobody ever say stuff like that about me? In England, “archangel” refers only to black and copper color birds, but here in America we have thrown off such tyrannically narrow definitions and archangels can be any color (and they can have crests or not).

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archangel pigeon (from http://loftone.net/archangels/)

Clearly we are having a bit of fun at the expense of pigeon breeders and the grandiloquent names they give their feathered darlings, but these birds really are cool.  Look at those metallic heads!

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Today (June 30th) is asteroid day.  For this auspicious (yet anxious-making) holiday, I have been saving two asteroid-related miniature stories ripped from the headlines.

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First, we return to the dwarf planet Ceres, the largest object in the asteroid belt.  We need to revisit the bright spots upon the dwarf planet’s surface.  Ever since the New Horizons spacecraft began to approach the little world, these glistening spots have fascinated the astronomy community.  Initially scientists thought that the spots were composed of hydrated magnesium sulfate (a substance quite similar to the Epsom salts sold for bathing and foot-soaking), however it now seems like the shiny patches are made of something else entirely.  According to astronomers, the particular chemical in these glistening patches actually turns out to be sodium carbonate–a salt formed from carbon.  On Earth, this chemical usually forms in evaporitic conditions–when water evaporates from a lake, sea, or hot springs.  This seems to indicate that the geology of Ceres is more complicated than initially thought—instead of a big ice crystal which has always been the same, the miniature planet has undergone changes: surface water evaporated to leave these mysterious chemical deposits.  Hopefully finding out about Ceres’ past can teach us more about how planets form (or don’t form).

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Second, we turn our eyes back closer to Earth to take in the newly discovered “second moon” a tiny asteroid about the size of the great pyramid of Giza which seems to be orbiting Earth.  This new asteroid, called 2016 HO3, is not really a true moon but a quasi-satellite: it sometimes loops around our planet because Earth and the little rock both orbit the sun on a similar circuit.  The asteroid orbits the sun in 365.93 days (just slightly longer than Earth’s orbit of 365.24 days). Thus, for the next few hundred years it will act like a true moon as our orbits converge. The rock is about 40 meters (130 feet) across by 100 meters (328 feet) wide.  It is a bit strange to think about it up there hidden in the darkness, but it is a fairly comforting asteroid day story.  2016 HO3 is never destined to hit Earth.  The really bad asteroids seem to be the ones we don’t know about (so it is time to keep our eyes on the skies and learn more).

Ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ignita) by Frupus

Ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ignita) by Frupus

Ah glorious summer is here, a time for reflection and relaxation when a person can kick back and…think about really beautifully colored parasitoid wasps. This is the ruby-tailed Wasp (Chrysis ignita) which lives in Western Europe and Great Britain. Although the wasp has a long stinger, it has no sting, so people who are afraid of bees and hornets can stop shuddering and enjoy the lovely iridescent blue-greens and purples of this jaunty little wasp. When the ruby-tailed Wasp is feeling alarmed, frightened, or just plain overwhelmed by modern life, it can curl into a protective ball. Although these wasps are very pretty, their behavior is less than beautiful–for they are a sort of cuckoo wasp. They find the nest of their hosts (ruby tailed wasps parasitize masonry bees) and lay their own eggs among the eggs of their victims. The different clutches of eggs hatch at the same time and the wasp larvae devour the bee larvae before morphing into adult insects. So, like nature itself, the ruby-tailed wasp is simultaneously beautiful and horrifying.

Now I sort of want to curl into a ball too...

Now I sort of want to curl into a ball too…

 

 

As mentioned previously, I am a toymaker who crafts the Zoomorphs mix-and-match animal toys (you can check them out here).  I always try to make the characters whimsical but with a strong basis in reality–which means color is one of the hardest things to figure out.  If the animals’ colors are too realistic and drab, children (and other toy aficionados) will not gravitate towards the toys, but if the colors are too bright the animals become surreal.

Zoomorphs Jurassicmorphs! (*cough* available at finer toy stores)

Fortunately I have always been helped out by our magnificent extinct friends, the dinosaurs.  Paleontologists have ideas about what color dinosaurs were (based on the coloration of living reptiles and birds), but the scientists still haven’t found any conclusive answers—which means I can paint my dinosaur characters with all of the gaudy 80s colors I can find in the Pantone book!

Microraptor Fossil with plumage--found in rural China (AP Photo/Mick Ellison, American Museum of Natural History, Science /AAAS) Photo: Mick Ellison, American Museum Of Natural History, Science/AAAS / AP)

Or at least that was true until now.  On Thursday, the scientific journal, um, Science reported that an international team of Chinese and American scientists have discovered the color of microraptor, a small feathered dinosaur about the size of a crow which lived 130 million years ago.  By studying the patterns of pigment-containing cell fragments known as melanosomes which were present in an exceptional microraptor fossil, the scientists determined that the ancient animal was black with an iridescent shimmer—a common pattern for many of today’s birds.  Microraptor apparently also had two long streamer feathers on its tail.  The little dinosaur likely used its iridescence and ornate tail feathers for social signaling with other microraptors over important concerns like territory and mating.

Artist's conception of Microraptor (Photo: Mick Ellison, American Museum Of Natural History, Science /AAAS / AP)

Many of the articles I have read about the microraptor’s coloration have playfully noted that the small predator hews to the fashion adage of wearing basic black with accents.  The articles also compare the tiny dinosaur (which had two pairs of wings—on both its legs and arms) to crows, grackles, starlings and the like.  However it is important to remember that microraptor was not yet a bird—it had sharp claws on nimble little hands and a mouthful of cruel teeth (so the fashion metaphor may be even more appropriate than the bird analogy).

A grackle shows off the same colors worn by microraptor 130 million years ago.

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